Hydrogen is a highly energy dense, zero-emission fuel that can be sourced from water using wind or solar energy. When it burns, it leaves nothing behind but water. If that sounds too good to be true, then it is -- at least for now. Currently, fossil fuels are the source for much of the world's hydrogen, and the dream of a sustainable "hydrogen economy" seems far away.
However, that gloomy outlook hasn't stopped the world's auto manufacturers from dabbling with electric vehicles powered by fuel cells. In the latest development, Toyota has taken things a step further, with the announcement of a new "full-fledged" carbon neutral hydrogen economy project involving two cities in Japan.
TriplePundit took a glance at the "hydrogen economy" concept back in 2005 and dug up this quote from The Energy Bulletin:
"Hydrogen isn’t an energy source – it’s an energy carrier, like a battery. You have to make it and put energy into it, both of which take energy."
For the record, until recently natural gas was thought to be a cleaner alternative to coal and petroleum, but a growing pile of evidence indicates that a long list of impacts, including fugitive methane emissions, water resource issues and earthquakes, is wiping out any advantage that natural gas has at the tailpipe.
In 2012 TriplePundit took a somewhat more balanced look at the issue and assessed the pros and cons of fuel cells, and by last spring we were noting the growing popularity of fuel cell vehicles in the logistics industry.
Other recent developments in the U.S. include the creation of a national fuel cell vehicle refueling network spearheaded by California and a GM fuel cell fleet project for the U.S. Army in Hawaii. Stationary fuel cells are also being adopted by major corporations, notably Ikea, which just this past summer announced a solar-enabled stationary fuel cell system for its store in Emeryville, California.
On the global scene, the manufacture of hydrogen from renewable energy, known as power-to-gas, is taking shape as national policy in Germany and Switzerland.
Yokohama and Kawasaki, coastal cities in the Keihin region, are the two cities involved in the new project. Local wind power will be used to manufacture hydrogen from water through electrolysis, which basically involves splitting water by using an electrical current, and the hydrogen will be stored for local use.
The project is still in the planning phases and, at least at this point, Toyota leaves room for the possibility that grid power will occasionally be needed. On the optimistic side, it's also possible that the system may generate more hydrogen than can be used locally, in which case excess wind energy could be sold to the grid.
Toyota lists these components for the new project:
Toyota is rolling out its new fuel cell electric vehicle Mirai in the U.S. this fall, so stay tuned.
As for the hydrogen economy, as American writer and satirist Mark Twain once famously cracked, "the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
Images courtesy of Toyota
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.